Along with Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius (1883–1969) is considered one of the masters of modern architecture. His buildings aren’t as widely known as among the other three architects, however his role as a teacher at the Bauhaus School in Germany, also at Harvard University after immigrating to the United States in 1937, cemented this status.
Gropius founded the Bauhaus School in Weimar in 1914, at the start of World War I, penning a manifesto five decades after when the school began in earnest. In it he called for people to “desire, conceive, and create the new structure of their near future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in 1 unity.”
These words indicate the contemporaneous De Stijl manifesto, but the conclusion of the Bauhaus’ new dwelling in 1926 in Dessau is a different direction than buildings such as the Rietveld-Schröder House. Considered Gropius’ masterpiece, the Bauhaus is an asymmetrical complex with all-glass exterior walls that he described as “accommodated into our universe of machines, radios and fast cars” and aligned “with all the new audacity of engineering.”
But seven decades after the Bauhaus closed under pressure from the Nazi regime, and Gropius, working on his own at the moment, fled to England. Four years later that he put out for the United States (as did Mies van der Rohe, to Chicago) at the invitation of the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design to direct the Department of Architecture, shifting it from a Beaux-Arts college to a concentrated on the “new architecture.” Close to Cambridge, Massachusetts, Gropius constructed a house for himself, an expression of his ideals in a foreign land. As we’ll see, the house shows how modern architecture, often seen as universalizing, actually responds to particulars of location.
Gropius House at a Glance
Year constructed: 1938
Architect: Walter Gropius
Location: Lincoln, Massachusetts
Visiting information: Self-guided tours accessible
Size: 2,300 square feet
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Gropius managed to create the home for his family through the generosity of Helen Storrow, a wealthy Boston matron, who provided him the land and a loan. Gropius worked on the house using Marcel Breuer, a colleague from the Bauhaus; the two would work together before the early 1940s.
Here we view the north elevation, with the front door beneath the canopy and supporting the glass block wall. A spiral stair leads to a second-floor terrace.
The land that Gropius was provided is near Walden Pond — Historic New England, which currently administers the house, gives this direction to it : “Route 126 South past Walden Pond.” The immigrant architect supposedly discussed Thoreau in writing concerning the house when it comes beyond physical closeness to the pond.
The house is surrounded by an apple orchard and other trees. It takes advantage of the circumstance through large windows and terraces, possibly a modern interpretation of Thoreau’s communing with nature.
Architectural historian Kenneth Frampton explains the house in his analysis: It is “more sculptural than most photos suggest. … [It] is a dynamic spatial article.” We’ve seen the primarily closed north (entry) side of this house; here we see that the south side, which invites the sun in through bigger windows and can be carved for the second-floor terrace.
The west side is anchored by a brick wall that contains the fireplace for the first-floor living room. The home’s sculptural attributes are most conspicuous in this view, where we view that the roof overhang propped upon slim pilotis as well as the trellised patio and a screened porch on the back of the house.
The solution to the house is via a driveway that comes in the northeast. This angle presents an extremely International-style appearance of the home’s planar white walls, ribbon windows and asymmetry. Yet some vertical lines can be felt when looking carefully at the bright east facade. Rather than whitewashed concrete block partitions — as was the norm with many modern buildings in Europe — Gropius utilized white vertically lapped siding on a wood balloon framework. (The steel columns in the previous photograph reveal that the structure is a hybrid vehicle in components.) Gropius found inspiration with the standard building methods and materials of the region, all of the while creating something different from the norm.
A canopy reaches out in the north facade at an angle, as if to catch people from the driveway. About halfway up the road to the front door is a glass block, a primitive separation from the vernacular substances that Gropius utilized. A glance round the wall shows the spiral stair leading to an opening in the exterior wall, what’s one of the most intriguing aspects of the design. (A spiral stair around the front of a house? Where does it lead?)
The glass block wall straddles inside and outside, making some refuge on the exterior and bringing a few indirect natural lighting to the interior.
A few steps inside the entryway and one is faced with a spiraling stair leading to the second floor. Again, there is something of a balance between new and old happening. Architect Alexander Gorlin explains how “the plan can be interpreted as a modern variant of the typical Colonial, using a central stair hall and also the living area to a side, the kitchen on the other, and the bedrooms over.” From that view toward the front door, the living room is about the left and the kitchen is behind us to the right.
Off the entry hall is Gropius’ study, which appears north through a large window. A doorway from the analysis into the front door also leads to the spiral stair outside; this doorway and the stair are due to how the second-floor access to the patio is through the children’s room. (See the floor plan below.)
Opposite the plate glass wall is just another glass block wall, separating the study from the dining room and living area.
Here is a view of the dining area from the living room; the two are basically an L-shaped open space wrapping around the analysis through the glass block wall. The furniture pieces in the dining room are Bauhaus originals made by Marcel Breuer that Gropius attracted from Germany.
Access to the bedroom in the master suite is by way of the dressing room of Gropius’ spouse, Ise. (The cupboard and toilet are on the left.) This special and possibly inconvenient situation is remedied by a transparent glass wall having a mirror mirror separating the two spaces.
Our final view of the house is of this second-floor terrace, looking west; the opening out of the spiral stair is just out of frame to the right. Here we can find a better glimpse of this timber siding that covers the house. We can also see a house that Gropius and Breuer made for Breuer on precisely the same land from Helen Storrow.
Gropius expired in 1969, and his wife decided 10 decades after to donate the house to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, currently Historic New England. The Gropius House opened as a museum in 1985, two years following Ise’s passing. In 2002 the house was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Forty-five decades of attention by the Gropiuses and regular restorations by Historic New England mean the house and its original furnishings are in fantastic shape and worth seeing in person.
Conrads, Ulrich, ed. Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture. MIT Press, 1994 (first published in 1964).Curtis, William J.R. Modern Architecture Since 1900. Prentice-Hall, third edition, 1996 (first published in 1982).Frampton, Kenneth and Larkin, David. American Masterworks: The Twentieth Century House. Rizzoli, 1995. Gorlin, Alexander. Tomorrow’s Houses: New England Modernism. Rizzoli, 2011.
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